Get ready. We’ll go places from where we can’t return. We’ll dismantle stories of disputes and disagreement, fear and persecutions, oppression and fugitives. We’re talking about exile, that ignoble art of prohibiting from returning home.
England was not indifferent to the privileged location of the island of Saint Helena. Lost in the South of the Atlantic, as if adrift in between Brazil and Angola, it became famous – and to this day it still is – because it was the ideal place for the English to keep Napoleon Bonaparte and his party of 26 for six years. The banishment to Saint Helena, where Napoleon came to die under conditions that are still cause for debate today, was the solution the British Empire found to eliminate him from public life without having to actually take his life – via, for example, assassination. Napoleon impersonates one of the stereotypes that define those in exile. Too inconvenient and dangerous to be left alone and free, too important to simply be killed, or even incarcerated, together with all the other common criminals. Napoleon was a statesman, a strategist and, at his peak, had been the emperor of France. Bonaparte never again saw his homeland of Corsica after being condemned to disgrace. It is said he spent his days staring at the sea, with his famed hand over his stomach. There are more than many exile stories. From Seneca to Leon Trotsky, from Juan Perón to Benazir Bhutto, from Julian Assange to Dalai-Lama, going through Casanova, Einstein, Neruda or Marlene Dietrich, there are several personalities that throughout history were forced to leave their land, some imposed by the government, others willingly, in order to protect themselves from attacks of the powerful. Ideological disagreements and political persecutions; censorship to creation and threats to physical integrity; knowing too much and threatening to tell it all; an oppressive system at play and the oppressed individual doing what we can: countless are the reasons that lead someone to exile. It is not a total denial of freedom, but an insidious punishment and, oftentimes, such as in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, for life, which prevented the punished person from coming back to where they come from, to their homeland. Will there be a sadder circumstance than being forbidden to go back home? Probably, yes. However, the impediment of going back to the place we were born, where we grew up, lived in, quite possibly fought for, inspires a feeling of sadness in every one of us – profound sadness. If we can’t go back to the place we came from we feel incomplete. What is a man without his starting point?
If it is easy to identify Napoleon as one of the most famed exiles of History – at least, given the amount of literature and cinematographic and television work (does someone out there still remember Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story, with Jacqueline Bisset as Josephine de Beauharnais?) exist about him and his life – it is harder to know who might have been the oldest amongst those that history has consecrated. Perhaps it is not that foolish to start with Moses, who fits the definition of exiled to a T. After all, after having killed a man, he was forced to leave Egypt to escape the death sentence himself. Moses, a fundamental figure to all Abrahamic religions, would have conducted, according to the biblical description, the Jewish, his people, to the Promised Land. After 40 years of crossing that included the extraordinary parting of the Red Sea, Moses would have died with Canaan at sight, meaning, not where he was born, nor in the land that God had promised him. Another who also had to go into exile was Aristotle, the philosopher. After the death of Alexander, the Great, who had been taught by Aristotle, there was an uprising in Athens of an anti-Macedonian current. In order to avoid greater damages, and, in his own words, “lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy” (the first time would have been at the time of Socrates’ death sentence), Aristotle, who was born in the Macedonian city of Stagira, takes refuge in Chalcis, in the island of Euboea, not that far from Athens, actually. From Classical Greece to Ancient Rome, we find Seneca, also a philosopher, though Stoic, and also counselor, statesman, lawyer and playwriter, who escaped death while he could, exiling in Corsica. And all of it because Messalina, the insidious wife of the emperor Claudio, accused him of adultery – and with whom: Júlia Lívila, the emperor’s niece. During exile, Seneca wrote On Consolation, three philosophical treaties that verse about pain and that are fundamental to the new stoicism. It ended up being another one of Claudio’s nieces, Agripina, that convinced the emperor to let Seneca back in Rome. Agripina ended up marrying Claudio (don’t ask) and the philosopher returned to the Eternal City, becoming the preceptor of the emperor’s son, Nero. The life of Seneca and Nero went on bound together until the death of Seneca, who even became the counselor of the new emperor. Until one day Nero accused Seneca of conspiracy. Since sentences were not something they made a fuss about, it was all simplified and the counselor was sentenced to suicide. As a good Stoic, Seneca slit his wrists and bled to death. According to the historian Tacitus, he did it rather serenely.
Many years later
Let us leave behind the remote past, because exile is something we still practice today. In Portugal, the generation who is now 70 or 80 grew up listening to the stories of exiles who were on the run from the persecution of PIDE, the political police of the old regime. Álvaro Cunhal and Mário Soares were probably the most visible faces of that wave of exiles, that took shelter mostly in France, but not only. Soares, for example, started by being deported by the regime, without trial, to São Tomé. His sentence was set following a tip he gave to a journalist of the Sunday Telegraph about a case that would later be known as the Ballet Rose. After Salazar’s death, Marcello Caetano allowed the return of Mário Soares, but shortly after he received an ultimatum issued by PIDE: either exile or prison. After being incarcerated a total of 12 times, Mário Soares chose the first option and establishes himself in Paris, from where he would only return to Portugal after the 25th of April 1974. Around the same time, Álvaro Cunhal also returns, he who was exiled since his escape – an epic escape, let it be noted – from the Peniche prison, on the 3rd of January 1960. During the 14 years he spent in exile, Cunhal, protected by the soviet regime, went firstly to Moscow and then to Paris, a city that welcomed many other illustrious Portuguese personalities, especially artists, such as José Mário Branco or Luís Cília. Also, musicians within a “muscular” regime as well – meaning, a military dictatorship -, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are the first examples of Brazilian artists that were exiled. The first exiled himself in Italy at the end of the 60s. Caetano and Gilberto fled with their respective wives to England after being incarcerated and forbidden to present themselves in public, a prohibition they did not respect on the eve of their exile, in July 1969, with two farewell concerts, in consecutive nights, at the Castro Alves Theater, in Salvador. From the recording of those concerts, the record Barra 69 was born. Chico, Caetano and Gilberto, just like other artists (mostly musicians) took a public stand against the dictatorship regime in Brazil. They all suffered the pain of censorship in their writing. Caetano and Gilberto even got themselves arrested – they shaved both their heads, shortly before they were exiled, a punishment that from where we’re standing might seem bland, but let’s not forget they were popular artists venerated by the audience.
There were too many political exiles to count during the XX century. One of them was Leon Trotsky. The same Soviet Union that fostered dissidents and exiles from other regions when they fled from fascist regimes, was the one forcing one of its most prominent figures to leave the country. After Lenin died in 1924, Trotsky presented himself as one of the succession’s alternatives, but is defeated by Stalin. Initially, he managed to organize a force of opposition to the new Soviet leader but ends up being kicked out of the party and deported, first to the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan and, later on, out of the country, from which he is banished. Trotsky then went through many countries – Turkey, France, Norway – before settling down in Mexico, where he would die after more than one assassination attempt, this time with an ice picker to the head. Amongst the political exiles of recent times, there are two feminine names that immediately emerge: Imelda Marcos and Benazir Bhutto. The first enjoyed a rather peaceful and comfortable stay in Hawaii, where she moved with her husband, Ferdinando Marcos, when he accepted to step down from the government of the Philippines, where he lost the elections to Corazon Aquino, in 1986. The Marcos family was granted a safeguard to leave the country in exchange for the recognition of the electoral results. After Ferdinando’s death, Imelda decided to go back to her homeland, even though she was aware she might have to face the justice system. And she did: after various trials for various cases, in 2018 she was convicted and sentenced to more than 40 years in jail out of a series of misconducts which, long story short, increased their welfare illicitly. However, no one has arrested her yet. Benazir Bhutto, on the other hand, had a much more complicated life – she was the prime minister of Pakistan twice, and was the first woman to rule a government that is, for the most part, Muslim. To get there, Bhutto had to prove herself many times over, including being exiled in the United Kingdom after having been arrested, in 1984. It was after she came back to Pakistan that she was first elected. And it was after her second win in the elections that she was forced to exile herself, firstly in London and then in Dubai, out of fear for her life, since the military, led by Pervez Musharraf, took over the power in Pakistan. Her dear was justified, as it was tragically verified years later: in 2007, Musharraf amnestied Bhutto and allowed her to return to her home in Pakistan. Right at her arrival, when reaching Karachi, the city where she was born, there was a bomb attack that killed more than 140 people. She ended up passing away two months later, in a suicidal attack in Rawalpindi, on the outskirts of the capital Islamabad.
The list of political refugees could go on for pages on end. From the former Argentinian president Juan Perón to the king of a then republican Spain, Juan Carlos, from the Tibetan Dalai-Lama Tenzin Gyatzo to the South-African Nelson Mandela, only to mention a few, the list of exiles for political reasons is too large for this one issue of Vogue. But politicians are not the only ones posing a threat to those who rule. And some didn’t even have to go as far as putting their governments at risk to find themselves exiled. Take the case of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. His extraordinary abilities in the art of hacking allowed him to gain access to ultra-top-secret-classified information – and, taking into account the contents of what was revealed to be executions by the order of the government of Kenya (without trial, of course) and about the treatment that was given to prisoners in Guantanamo bay amongst other scandals that brush upon the unthinkable, it is not shocking to realize just how much these stories were kept under wraps. Assange was forced to exile in London – actually, he was forced to ask got political asylum at the embassy of Ecuador, in London – after various hiccups with the justice system of more than one country and his admirable ability to escape. In the meantime, in 2019, the embassy of Ecuador invited the London police department to visit their building and capture Assange, who was still under arrest. There are, in the whole wide world, countless heavy-weight personalities that have demonstrated their support to Assange and revolt for the way he was prosecuted – first and foremost, by the Swedish police, with an excruciatingly complex process that included rape and sexual assault – and alas detained, almost in an act of treason, by a State that vouched to protect him. One of those personalities is Edward Snowden, yet another whistleblower, or, in a more prosaic and less glamorous manner, a “denunciator”. Snowden was also forced to exile after having revealed details on the global surveillance programs of the NSA – National Security Agency, in the United States. Snowden was also a systems administrator for the CIA, before working for the NSA. The North American government chased him down, accusing him of stealing property from the United States of America. The whistleblower then asked Ecuador for political asylum, similarly to what Julian Assange had done shortly before, but Ecuador’s government didn’t grant it to him. Edward Snowden ended up being exiled in Russia, first under a license of the government – which was renovated – and, later on, taking advantage of the alteration of Russian legislation that allows one to ask for citizenship without having to abdicate one’s former nationality, he applied, together with his wife, Lindsay, to the Russian citizenship.
It comes in the books
The tombstone of Dante Alighieri, the literature world genius, has written on it an epitaph in Latin in which the city of Florence is referred to as a “loveless mother”. Dante was born in Florence and was forced into exile. He lived in many Italian cities throughout his life, but never returned to his hometown. He died in Ravenna. The Town Hall of Florence decided, in 2008, to forgive the author of Divine Comedy, who died in 1321. Too late. Amongst writers, Victor Hugo also lived in exile for some time outside of France – the same France that embraces and shelters all exiles, such as Gao Xingjian from China. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the German playwriter and poet Berlot Brecht both have exile stories in many European countries due to divergences with the parties that rose to power in their homelands. Salman Rushdie, who was born in India, lives in exile in London under the protection of the British government after having received threats and suffered assassination attempts after having published, in 1988, The Satanic Verses. Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence or T.S. Eliot are other powerhouse names in literature that have been exiled. Giacomo Casanova, who confessed in his giant memoir book to having slept with 122 women throughout his life, was also forced into exile after escaping from prison. As we can see, writers are extremely dangerous. Since they possess the extraordinary ability to write words, aligning them and turning them into ideas, whether literally, or with occult messages in underlying meanings that are only legible the second time you read them, writers are, in the eyes of governments, as potential agents in the fall down of a system. Is there a more powerful tool than words! And a word that fits well with the next might have devastating consequences – especially to the author of the text where they are placed, who might, for example, end up in exile. That was what happened to these people.
*Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Forbidden Issue, published april 2021.